Saturday, 6 November 2010

Days of the Dead: Recollection

Although 'Days of the Dead' is not an official title, there were three days last week that celebrated the dead in one form or another: Halloween, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day.

I was surprised to find out how much Halloween is celebrated here. I had thought it was a primarily US occasion, with some minor echoes elsewhere, eg as a theme for TV programmes. I hadn't thought of it as an important school entertainment day in England and certainly can't recall the shops stocking huge amounts of pumpkins and other decorative gourds for people to take home for the celebration. It seem to have started here in the 1990s, but our first celebration was in 2004: we judged Misia old enough to go up and down the stairwell of the block and knock on neighbour's doors. We had our first pumpkin then.

Last year we had fun going around several farms to look at the pumpkins/gourds they had grown and choosing the best decorative combination. Just some of them are shown below.

This year we have one lonesome gourd by the front door, but I bought a combination of hats and decorated candle holders - a witch and two pumpkins. Misia is now a bit old to want to wander round, but we were visited by four sets of young horror film characters who were given a choice of cakes and sweets to take away with them. The doorbell constantly ringing reminded me of Christmas time in London some years ago. However, a Polish friend had told us that children were now knocking on the door in London as well.

Paulina Wawrzyńczyk's Discovering Polish and Poland gave us the spirit of All Saint's and All Soul's Days, with the latter - celebrating all those who have died - effectively being celebrated on All Saint's Day. I assume the latter - celebrating Saints known and unknown - is properly celebrated in church, but I have seen no wider sense of this being considered by people generally. Michael Dembinski's W-Wa Jezioriki gave a more sombre view, which, as Basia also commented on the blog, "choked me up a little bit". However, the historical sadness of his perspective is not one I recognise from visits to the graveside - it's a time of remembering loved ones for themselves, praying for them and some times talking to them. Our families may just be different. Mind you, one of the things that surprised me about Warsaw's Wolska cemetery was, unlike Michael's description, how little there was to remind me about the war (although the Warsaw Uprising Cemetery lies adjacent to it).

I can't give any pictures of visiting the graveyards over this period, however. My job is to stay at home, look after Misia and prepare the dinner. This routine actually started at my father-in-law's funeral. There were good logical reasons for my exclusion, although none would have been relevant if I was Polish.

Perhaps the most interesting reason was simply that English people have no respect for the dead. The converse of an Englishman liking the Polish tradition of visiting the graves of departed ones is that Polish people consider that the English do not care about them because they do not do visit them. Indeed, for most people, the idea of cremating someone and spreading their ashes under a rose bush is too abhorrent to contemplate. There has to be a grave to visit and maintain and, for many people, even cremation before burial is unacceptable. (Polish law still, I think, requires the remains to be buried.) Indeed, even an Aunt who failed to visit and maintain her husband's grave was clearly uncaring. However, in a way, they are right about me. I have no respect for the dead, but I do cherish the memories of those who have lived. Photographs of my father-in-law are more important to me than his grave.

1 comment:

Jacek said...

A very well written, interesting perspective on the topic Steve. I enjoyed reading it.

Now, that I've discovered your blog (glad you gave us a link on Polandian) I'll be visiting more often.